Calling for millions of dollars in increased funding for online learning initiatives, Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott announced the third plank of his education policy plan on Thursday — a proposal to increase access to the Texas Virtual School Network and to create several grant programs to fund the development and implementation of digital learning courses.
Abbott’s plan, unveiled at an elementary school in Tyler, calls for increased reliance on digital and blended learning techniques in Texas schools, particularly in the state’s underperforming schools — campuses with "D" or "F" ratings under the Texas Education Agency’s accountability system — to help close the achievement gaps between students at those schools and the state’s top performing districts.
“Digital learning will propel a transition toward an education system based on personalized education plans that focus on the individual needs of each student rather than seat-time requirements,” Abbott’s proposal reads.
In his plan, Abbott proposed improving enrollment in the Texas Virtual School Network, which was created in 2007 by the Legislature to provide semester-long online courses that count for course credit in public schools.
Enrollment in the program has been dismal: Only 2,400 students out of more than 1 million in the state enrolled during the spring 2013 semester, according to Abbott. In his proposal, he indicates that the enrollment is bogged down for several reasons: A district can deny a student’s enrollment if it offers a “substantially similar course,” and districts will only pay for three online courses for each student per year.
He proposes changing state law so that a student can take any course that aligns with the state’s curriculum standards, Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), and fits into the student's graduation plan.
In the proposal, Abbott also said that the state should cover any additional course costs for students at D- and F-rated schools who want to take more than the three courses districts currently offer.
Abbott’s campaign said the initiative would cost $4.2 million for the 2016-17 school year, with the money coming from the state’s general revenue fund.
“Texas students and parents should be able to determine if enrolling in a TxVSN class would better benefit that particular student than the traditional option at the school they are attending,” Abbott’s proposal reads.
Abbott also proposed creating “innovation grants” to encourage school districts to develop or implement “blended virtual education models.” The proposal indicates that school districts would work with TEA to develop proposals and compete for $250,000 to $650,000 in annual grants. The state would have to budget $1 million per year to underwrite TEA's work with competing districts, and the proposal suggests awarding at least 10 innovation grants.
He also calls for the creation of a technology grant program for D- and F-rated schools that could cost an estimated $100 million each biennium to provide underperforming schools with funding to expand access to technological tools so that students who are less likely to have access to these tools at home will have access to them in the classroom.
Teacher groups were not impressed with the plan. “Greg Abbott’s digital learning plan is another timid proposal that would benefit only a select few of our students, much like his limited pre-K plan,” said Texas State Teachers Association President Rita Haecker.
And Zac Petkanas, a spokesman for Democratic gubernatorial nominee Wendy Davis, called it an attempt to deflect criticism of Abbott's previous involvement with the embattled Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, which was found to have awarded millions of dollars in grants without proper peer review.